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The Sicily-New Orleans Connection: Jazz is the Art of Encounter par Excellence

Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso talks about jazz as democracy and his new album, "We Play for Tips"

Francesco Cafiso (Foto Alessandro Gardini)

"All the people who emigrated to New Orleans at the beginning of the 1900s brought something that, inevitably, has been mixed with other elements coming from other places. An example of perfect democracy in which tolerance, dialogue, confrontation. and sharing have given life to a constantly evolving art form. There are many similarities between the two musical worlds, which is why I feel very comfortable when, for example, I find myself in a marching band context, very similar to the bands that I saw as a child in my city in Sicily."

We Play for Tips, the outstanding new album by the Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso, is a homage to New Orleans jazz. The title comes from a saying that Crescent City street musicians have emblazoned on their caps, an image that Cafiso says stuck with him after a trip to New Orleans when he was a teenager. But the latest recording by the 28-year-old virtuoso from Vittoria also represents a contemporary musician’s connection to a history that began a century ago, when Sicilian immigrant and first-generation Sicilian American musicians contributed to the development of jazz in New Orleans.

Although jazz first emerged in the city’s African American and Creole communities, Sicilians were the main European nationality group to adopt and perform it. And as recent jazz historiography has shown, they didn’t simply imitate great innovators like Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet. In the early days of New Orleans jazz, influence often was a two-way street: Sicilian musicians learned syncopated rhythms and blues tonalities from African Americans while black players absorbed popular Italian melodies and the lyric Italian trumpet sound. Armstrong and the great Creole clarinetist Bechet adapted operatic arias and bel canto technique. Black and Sicilian musicians also drew from many of the same sources, including ragtime, blues, marching bands, cakewalks, and the popular songs of the day.

Francesco Cafiso is cognizant of this history, as was evident when I recently interviewed him (via email).

“The Sicilians have made a great contribution so that this genre could be born and evolve,” he noted. “This fills me with pride and pushes me to carry on this tradition. I also made a record in 2015, La Banda, which in addition to paying tribute to Sicilian jazz musicians of the past, was inspired by the band tradition strongly rooted in Sicily, which was a fundamental element at the dawn of jazz.”

Francesco Cafiso e la sua band (Foto di Antonio Riva)

“Jazz is the art of encounter par excellence,” he observed. “Cultural diversities were a great wealth at the beginning of this music, because they managed to be in dialogue with each other, generating a language that still is fed by the most disparate ingredients. All the people who emigrated to New Orleans at the beginning of the 1900s brought something that, inevitably, has been mixed with other elements coming from other places. An example of perfect democracy in which tolerance, dialogue, confrontation. and sharing have given life to a constantly evolving art form. There are many similarities between the two musical worlds, which is why I feel very comfortable when, for example, I find myself in a marching band context, very similar to the bands that I saw as a child in my city in Sicily.”

Cafiso’s connection to New Orleans runs deep. He was discovered by Wynton Marsalis, the renowned, New Orleans-born trumpeter, composer, and bandleader who, in 2003, asked the fourteen-year old Cafiso to tour Europe with him and his band. In 2005, Cafiso visited Marsalis’ home town. “I was in New Orleans for more than a month to do everything that a local musician commonly does: play with marching bands, on balconies, in the various jazz clubs of the city and, more generally, breathe the atmosphere of a city that remains fascinating, full of vibrations and energy.”

“I played quite often at Snug Harbor [a leading jazz club on Frenchman Street, in the Marigny neighborhood] with Ellis [Marsalis, Wynton’s father] and Jason [one of Wynton’s younger brothers], wonderful experiences. We played Ellis’ music and I learned a lot from them by sharing the stage. I do not remember long chats but they taught me very simply by playing. It was great to hear Ellis talking about various anecdotes from life and music.”

“For emotional reasons I am very attached to the Marsalis family but I met many other musicians during my stay in New Orleans. I remember with great pleasure Alvin Batiste and Jon Batiste, with whom I often played there and who today is enjoying considerable success in America.” Jon Batiste, a pianist, currently leads Stay Human, the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Alvin Batiste was an important figure on the New Orleans modern jazz scene who created his own jazz institute at Southern University in Baton Rouge. (Batiste died in 2007, just hours before he was to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.)

“I met him a few times at his house and he just asked me to play,” Cafiso recalls. “He did not give me a lot of artistic advice but he was very attentive to the technical setting on the instrument and to the aesthetics. The biggest lesson was absorbing the music that I felt along the streets of the city, while I was playing with these great people.”

Although Cafiso feels a strong affinity for New Orleans and its music, We Play for Tips is not a New Orleans jazz album.  “My style has its roots in the tradition of jazz and in my music, there is also the jazz of New Orleans, although not in a preponderant way, ” he said. “It is one of the many ingredients of my artistic baggage.”

Cafiso’s new album —the first on his new independent label E FLAT— is a modern jazz album that incorporates aspects of New Orleans jazz, its blues and swing, and even marching band traditions. Two of the ten Cafiso compositions (co-arranged with Nonet pianist Mauro Schiavone) that make up the album pay homage to his musical heroes Wynton Marsalis (“Blo-Wyn’”) and Louis Armstrong (“Pop’s Character”). “Recreating,” “16 Minutes of Happiness,” “See You Next Time” and the title track first appeared on 20 Cents per Note, one of the three disks that made up his 2015 album, 3. Cafiso and his Nonet recorded nearly all of We Play for Tips live in June 2017 during the tenth annual Vittoria Jazz Festival, which he directs. “See You Next Time” was recorded during the 2016 Vittoria festival.

We Play for Tips displays not only Cafiso’s mastery of the alto saxophone (and flute); it makes a strong case for his talents as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. The music has the propulsive force and robust sound of a big band yet at times also the intimacy of a smaller ensemble. Its emotional register is varied, ranging from the jaunty “Pop’s Character” (the most New Orleans-like piece on the album) to the introspective “Intentional Mood” to the extroverted, hard-swinging “20 Cents per Note.” Cafiso, who began playing the saxophone when he was nine and made his professional debut in 2001 at the age of 12, has gone from a child prodigy to a master, and he’s not yet thirty years old. He is an extraordinary player and it’s a shame that he’s seen so rarely in the US and in its capital city of jazz, New York.  (In 2016, he played an electrifying concert at the Italian Cultural Institute in Manhattan.) We jazz aficionados want him back here, and soon.

But in the meantime, enjoy his and the Nonet’s February 2018 performance, recorded at the Tatum art club in Palermo.

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